WASHINGTON — Rushing to curb political fallout, the White House pushed back yesterday against harsh criticism in a new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that questions President Barack Obama’s war leadership and rips into Vice President Joe Biden.
The tell-all memoir from Gates has created a splash in Washington, casting a negative light on Obama’s national security operations by detailing a high level of discord among the small team that made key decisions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For two key participants — Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the accusations could color how the two potential 2016 presidential candidates are viewed by voters.
Initially caught off guard by the book’s accusations, Obama’s aides walked a fine line between publicly rebuking his former defense chief and allowing Gates’ claims to go unchallenged. Still, the White House hurried to Biden’s defense and said the president disagrees with Gates’ characterization.
White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed several of Gates’ points individually but said Obama appreciated Gates’ service. He said those who have the privilege to serve at high levels make their own decisions about whether and when to divulge details of private conversations after they leave government.
“I’ll leave it to other folks to decide,” Carney said.
In the book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War,” Gates accuses Obama of having little resolve for his own strategy in Afghanistan and of presiding over a national security team in which military leaders were treated with suspicion and career staffers brushed aside as decisions were centralized among a small cadre of White House advisers.
But Gates reserves his most sweeping indictment for Biden. Despite praising Biden’s integrity and personal sense of loyalty, Gates asserts that the vice president “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The White House moved quickly to dispel that notion, issuing a statement calling Biden a “leading statesmen of his time” and echoing the sentiment before television cameras.
“I don’t think anybody who has covered us or knows the president and the vice president, knows how this White House functions, has any doubt about the president’s faith in Vice President Biden as an adviser and counselor,” Carney said.
In a rare departure from its usual policy, the White House allowed news photographers in yesterday to Obama’s weekly luncheon with Biden in the private dining room just off the Oval Office, where Biden spoke animatedly to Obama as they two sat across each other at a wood table. Carney said the White House merely was giving photographers more access, which they have demanded.
Biden’s central role in decision-making also was on display in Obama’s public schedule for yesterday, which showed the vice president meeting with the president five times during the day.
For the White House, defending Biden against questions about his value to the administration has become something of a familiar exercise. Late last year, Obama and his top aides sought to swat down reports in a book about Obama’s re-election that the White House had considered replacing Biden with Clinton on the 2012 ticket.
Sensitive to the fact that Biden was frequently overshadowed by Clinton during her prominent tenure as secretary of state, Obama has cautiously sought to avoid showing favoritism — especially when it comes to 2016.
Gestures that have appeared to bolster Clinton’s standing as an heir apparent to Obama — such as a private lunch the two shared last year — have frequently been followed by similar gestures to show Biden is still a valued part of the team. The day after Obama and Clinton dined together, Biden held his own private breakfast with Clinton.
Personal likeability aside, Gates’ contempt for Biden’s role in wartime decisions is evident throughout the nearly 600-page memoir, during which Gates accuses the vice president of seeding doubt in Obama’s mind about his Afghanistan policy and “subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture” with daily comments about how the military can’t be trusted.
Clinton, in contrast to Biden, is described in almost uniformly flattering terms — “smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague,” Gates writes.
One anecdote could potentially cause problems for Clinton should she run again in 2016. Gates describes a meeting during which Clinton and Obama both acknowledged their opposition to the Iraq war surge in 2007 was driven by the politics of the Democratic primary, in which Obama and Clinton were running against each other.
In one anecdote in the book, Obama, after fighting over the defense budget in 2009, personally gave Gates a gift-wrapped package — an expensive bottle of vodka with a handwritten note.
“Bob, Sorry I drive you to drink. Barack Obama,” the note read, according to Gates.
“It was a very thoughtful peace offering,” Gates wrote in the book.
While the White House has avoided directly rebuking Gates for writing the book, former Obama advisers have been more vocal. Former senior White House adviser David Axelrod said he was surprised when he heard about the book, while Bill Daley, who was Obama’s chief of staff during Gates’ tenure, called it a “disservice” for Gates to publish while Obama was still in office.
Such tell-all memoirs are not new to Washington and generally cause a brief stir as juiciest excerpts are leaked, circulated and dissected on TV and in the press before eventually fading.
“Read any good books lately?” Carney quipped yesterday to reporters.